Yoon Suk-yeol, president of the Republic of Korea, flew to Washington on Monday for a six-day state visit, with the aim of bulking up military deterrence in the region, a move experts say would exacerbate confrontation and increase uncertainty in Northeast Asia.
Yoon's April 24-29 trip will be the first state visit to the United States by a ROK leader since 2011 and will mark the 70th anniversary of the countries' alliance.
During the visit, the two leaders are expected to discuss several issues, including strengthening the military alliance, and economic and security cooperation.
A senior U.S. official said on Friday that U.S. President Joe Biden, during the summit with Yoon, would pledge "substantial" steps to underscore U.S. commitments to deter Pyongyang.
"The upcoming ROK-U.S. summit, a major event for the diplomatic ties between the two, demonstrates to the world that Seoul stands firmly with Washington despite the changing global landscape and geographical tensions," said Li Nan, a researcher specializing on the Korean Peninsula at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
It is clear that the U.S. would increase its military deterrence against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Li said, adding that the U.S. is aiming at including the ROK in its small circle in building a containment line against China and Russia.
Yoon has been pushing to boost the ROK's say in operating the U.S.-extended deterrence but exactly what that might entail has not been spelled out.
However, even within the borders, Yoon's foreign policies favoring the U.S. have met with resistance, according to observers.
According to Yonhap News Agency, the poll conducted by Gallup Korea reveals that Yoon's disapproval rating is at 60 percent. Survey respondents cited reasons for disapproval, including poor diplomatic performance, failure to effectively address socioeconomic problems and mishandling of forced labor disputes with Japan.
In another poll of 2,520 adults aged 18 or older conducted by Realmeter from Monday to Friday last week, Yoon's disapproval rating was 64.7 percent, up 1.3 percentage points from the previous week. Diplomacy and national security were the most mentioned factors in the evaluation.
Li said crises faced by Yoon's administration: Domestically, there is an issue with out-of-control inflation and a struggling economy, while tensions with Pyongyang continue to escalate, and relations with China and Russia have soured.
Since taking office, the Yoon administration has demonstrated a stark departure from the balanced approach of the previous Moon Jae-in administration, Li said. Yoon views Moon's policy of balancing relations with China and the U.S. as a threat to the U.S.-ROK alliance, which has prompted Yoon to choose to side with the U.S., Li added.
Yoon is due to meet Biden for their summit and hold a joint news conference on Wednesday. He will address the U.S. Congress on Thursday and then travel to Boston, where he will speak at the Harvard Kennedy School.
During the visit, Yoon has taken a 122-member business delegation comprising chiefs of conglomerates, including Samsung Electronics Executive Chairman Lee Jaeyong, to boost partnerships on supply chains and high-tech areas, including chips and batteries.
Focus on trade losses
"It is obvious that Yoon is going to embrace the U.S. with the greatest hope and enthusiasm this time. What we can see from the business delegation is Yoon's economic purpose of recovering trade losses and boosting cooperation with Washington," said Lyu Chao, director of the Institute of America and East Asia at Liaoning University in Shenyang.
Just a day before Yoon's departure, the U.S. asked the ROK to urge its chipmakers not to fill any market gap in China if Beijing bans memory chipmaker Micron Technology Inc from selling chips, in a move to contain China's high-tech advance, according to the Financial Times. The White House did not comment on the report.
"This is so embarrassing if the ROK does what the U.S. has asked it to do. The U.S. totally disregards the interests of the ROK. Seoul will only tie itself to the U.S. chariot, becoming a vassal of Washington and losing its status as an independent sovereign nation," Lyu said.
"If Seoul follows the U.S. move to turn itself against its neighbors, it would only escalate tensions in the region and a reshuffle of regional powers, sparking more uncertainties and confrontations."